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1855: Cornstarch cake

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Years before cornstarch was marketed for culinary use, housewives baked it into weirdly industrial cakes.

If any cake baked from scratch ever looked like the product of food industry marketing, it’s the cornstarch cake, a plain white cake in which a third or more of the flour is replaced by cornstarch. It seems so obviously a gimmick to get you to use up that ancient box of cornstarch in your pantry—it’s not just for pudding anymore! You might expect to find such a recipe sponsored by the Cornstarch Council, or perhaps in an ad for Argo brand. What’s more, I have never baked anything from scratch that so strongly resembled, in flavor, appearance, and texture, a packaged snack cake. But cornstarch cake was neither factory made nor even factory invented. It appeared in the 1850s, decades before cornstarch was branded and sold in boxes and before manufacturers marketed their products with recipes and cookbooks. Cornstarch cake was the product of ordinary women experimenting at home, looking for shortcuts—hacking their cakes, you might say — and that fact ought to make us rethink some of our assumptions about why Americans started eating “processed” food.

ad for Campbell's Condensed Soup, 1901

1904: Convenience becomes fashionable

Why do people buy industrial “convenience foods”? Because they’re convenient, of course. We’re busy, and we don’t have time to cook from scratch. Or, rather, we think we’re busy, and we think we don’t have time to cook from scratch. Sometimes that’s the case. More often, the needs we don’t have time to fill by our own labor weren’t really needs in the first place.

Take, for example, Campbell’s Condensed Soup. When that product was introduced in the 1890s, canned soup had been around for a couple of decades; what was new was the process by which the soup was condensed and the size of the can cut in half, which made the end product cheaper. The earliest ads, placed on streetcars, aimed at the working mothers who rode them, simply showed the can, gave basic instructions (“Just add hot water and serve”), and noted “6 plates for 10¢.” Some of the first magazine ads for condensed soup were placed in the American Federationist, a union magazine. A 1901 ad featured oxtail soup, which, like early soups, was intended as the backbone of a meal.1 For families with little time and little money, then, yes, canned soup seems to have been an obvious convenience.

ad for Campbell's Condensed Soup, 1901

But that’s only half the story. The other half is that home economists eagerly accepted the new convenience and sold it to middle-class women through the monthly magazines they edited. Not only did general-purpose women’s magazines like Good Housekeeping promote “progressive” cooking, but a few turn-of-the-century magazines devoted themselves entirely to cookery. These magazines offered not only recipes and in-depth discussions of culinary techniques and new products but also gave a month’s worth of daily menus in each issue. By 1904, Table Talk was specifically recommending Campbell’s soups in its menus as replacements for homemade—not every day, but once or twice a week. They didn’t suggest making a meal out of canned soup, even for lunch, but rather serving it as a first course. Here, for example, is Table Talk‘s dinner menu for Tuesday, February 23, 1904:

Heinz ad, 1958

Further perils of authenticity

Completely by accident awhile back I ran across this ad from Life magazine:

Heinz ad, 1958

Heinz ran that ad in August 1958, at the height of the popular interest in Pennsylvania Dutch food, when that cuisine was being made over in the popular imagination into a mishmash of generically comforting old-timey domesticity. And, of course, co-opted by the Culinary-Industrial Complex, because what hasn’t been? Today you may just (and justly) reel in horror from the thought of vinegared baked beans or of canned tomato soup with canned corn and a pretzel floated on top. Purists of 1958 might weep over the cheapening of a long tradition of sweet and sour accompaniments to a Sunday dinner or holiday feast, an array of homemade pickles, salads, and preserves. Store-bought wouldn’t do. By the time I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, though, aside from an occasional batch of home-pickled beets, the nearest I got to that tradition was commercial pickles on a salad bar. So to me, authentic Pennsylvania Dutch pickles meant a jar of locally processed chow chow.

a jar of chow chow

Today, even that much tradition is fast fading away, and some benighted soul clinging to the last tattered shreds of uncertain heritage might search in vain for chow chow on a salad bar, even if he hadn’t up and moved to the South.

One man’s authenticity, in other words, is another’s bastardization. And that paradox isn’t the product of industrial food.

Life and death (and soup) in the city

Originally published by New American Homesteader in 2015.

Under a bright December sky we gathered to kill the St. Elizabeth House chickens. My friends who built the coop and tended the chickens had moved to Georgia for a new job, and the chickens had mostly quit laying. Now the aging hens strutted and preened one last time in the weak solstice sun, oblivious to their fate.

“Why can’t they just keep feeding the chickens?” my daughter wanted to know.

Because, baby, nobody here can afford pet chickens. It is a house by and for those living on the margins, where the doors are open for community dinners and a room is reserved for someone with nowhere else to sleep. For two years the chickens fed our friends with their eggs, and in return received clean grain and warm grass and a well-built coop. But the humans come first, so now they’ll have to be soup. Better that than to be a racoon’s lunch. My daughter nodded: Her chickens met that fate last fall. She saw the carnage.

So our farmer friend Jamie offered to help slaughter and dress the birds, and I volunteered because—why? I was happy to help. I’d done this before and I have good knives. It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed the company. And something more. Years ago, I needed to prove to myself that I could kill an animal, feeling that if I were going to eat them, I ought to accept my responsibility in the matter. I made my peace with meat. But it’s good to be reminded the cost.

Meat and mystery

Another day, another tale of mystery meat.

Nestle voluntarily recalled two of its Hot Pocket products as part of a larger meat recall….

These products may have been affected by a recall by Rancho Feeding Corp. last week of 8.7 million pounds of beef product.

Regulators said the company processed “diseased and unsound animals” without a full federal inspection, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA says the products were unfit for human consumption.

What, faced with such horror, are the temptations? One is to crawl back under the covers and hide, to gnaw our Hot Pockets in nurtured ignorance. Another is to raise the hue and cry, to demand regulation or retribution, after which (we hope, stupidly) all will again be well. A third is to run away, retreat, withdraw into a culinary monastery of one, refusing to eat anything that might be tainted.

All three temptations lead us wrong. All three reinforce the error that led wrong us in the first place — that raised livestock to disease and unsoundness, hashed them into “beef product,” flavored them with chemicals, wrapped them in pastry and called them dinner.

What is at bottom wrong with our food system is that it indulges our desire to believe ourselves separate, apart, above. Food is grown from mud and shit. Every living thing is nourished by the death of another, or of many others. We rely on an earth we cannot control for our sustenance and on the decency and goodwill of others to bring it to us. Nature is messy. Life is messy.

The supermarket permits none of this. Dinner is chopped, diced, sized, sorted, arranged, flavored, cheerfully labeled, engagingly presented, laboratory-fresh, untouched by human hands, neat and clean and ordered.

Bullshit.

19th-century cartoon of a glutton

Fat(e), free will, and forgiveness

19th-century cartoon of a glutton

A hundred-odd years ago, gluttony was a sin, but fat men could be seen merely as successful. We seem to have reversed the calculus.

Some of the new research on possible causes of obesity is fascinating. New theories emerge continually, many of them at best inconsistent and at worst contradictory. But what interests me more is the debate that research sparks, which seems, at least in the popular arena, to be less about what actually causes obesity than about whose fault it is. It’s a subtle but important difference: the former is (largely, at least) a scientific question; the latter makes it a political or a philosophical one — and is, it seems to me, a thoroughly unhelpful approach.

Standards and Stewards

In this 2003 essay I argue that the desire for standards, because it tends to produce standardization, is antithetical to stewardship, which must be based on an intimate knowledge of unique persons and places. No set of standards, therefore — such as the national organic standards — can serve as a substitute or even a stepping-stone to true stewardship, and may even make that ultimate goal more difficult to reach.

On growing potatoes

Originally published in the Northern Agrarian.

When I write about gardening I sometimes, without meaning to, give the impression that I wake every morning to survey a vast domain of neatly tilled beds and a refrigerator bursting with home-grown produce. In fact we have very little space. We own an acre and a quarter, but nearly all of it is wooded; very little gets enough sun to support a garden — and most of that is in the backyard, which has the twin disadvantage of being underlaid by a septic field and being overrun by basset hounds. The former means we can’t dig, while the later means that anything we do plant will be dug up.

Beet greens

Originally published in The Northern Agrarian, May 2008.

When I was young my parents tended a small garden: Peas, tomatoes, lettuce, parsley, zucchini, beets. All this in the small backyard of a small house in a medium-sized northern town, sheltered from a major highway by a cinder-block laundromat. My mother pickled beets, canned apple butter and pear preserve, baked wheat bread twice a week. A cry of rebellion against the confines of urban life, I might say, but my parents are not the cry-of-rebellion type. When I was seven we moved to the country, to a bigger house with a vast backyard in one of the most fertile patches of land on the planet. That first summer they planted a big garden, maybe too big. I grew a dozen ears of corn. Zucchini swelled. Groundhogs descended. The following year they never got around to the tilling, and they never gardened again.